Remembering David Tudor: A 75th Anniversary Memoir

Mills College and the First Laser Light Show, 1968–1969

Upon the completion of my graduate work at the University of Toronto in 1968, Nora and I moved to Oakland, California. I accepted the position of “Artistic Director” of the Tape Music Center (TMC) at Mills College; Tony Gnazzo was already there as “Technical Director.” One autumn day, Gnazzo received a telephone call from Professor Carson D. Jeffries of the physics department at the University of California, Berkeley (UCB). In addition to his very impressive research and teaching career as a physicist, Professor Jeffries was an avid designer and builder of kinetic sculptures. He wanted to try his hand at the TMC’s Buchla synthesizer to make electronic sounds to accompany the presentation of his works. Gnazzo invited him, and my acquaintance with this remarkable man began. C.D. Jeffries was born in Lake Charles, Louisiana on 20 March 1922, received his Ph.D. in physics from Stanford University in 1951, and taught in the UCB physics department from 1952 until his retirement in 1992. He died of a brain tumor at his home in Oakland on 18 October 1995.

I soon had the chance to tell Carson D. Jeffries about my ideas for using laser beams and x–y scanning to create large–scale multi–color displays from audio materials. I was already familiar with strip–chart recorders employing light–beam galvanometers, and I proposed to Carson D. Jeffries that a pair of those mirror galvanometers mounted in a 90° tandem arrangement would permit real–time x–y scanning, and large–scale projections, when used with a laser as light source. He became immediately interested, opened his palms, brought them close together, and moved them in opposite directions – as though they were mirror galvanometers. He then exclaimed, “Yes, that should work!”

Merce Cunningham and Dance Company, including John Cage and David Tudor as musicians, appeared at Zellerbach Hall on the Berkeley campus 9–10 November 1968. David Tudor stayed with Nora and me instead of with the rest of the dance group at a hotel. He had discovered Nora’s talents as an excellent cook – and he liked my bartending capabilities. We took good care of David Tudor at our Oakland and Iowa City dwellings on many occasions over the next decade. At our Oakland apartment I told David Tudor about my plans for laser performances and my discussions with Carson D. Jeffries. In response, he told me about the possibility that Billy Klčver and E.A.T., Inc. might become involved with Pepsi–Cola in outfitting an “art and technology” pavilion for the upcoming 1970 World Exhibition, Expo ’70, in Osaka, Japan. He hinted that a laser or lasers might become part of the installation. Furthermore, a laser scientist named Elsa Garmire at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena had suggested that colored beams could be made to rotate inside the space, possibly reflected from a mirror ball. David Tudor and I were a bit cautious about our respective thought processes that November, especially when I told him that a rotating mirror ball scheme for use with colored beams was a trivial idea, whether proposed by a laser scientist or not. He informed me that he was to be one of four “Core Artists” supervising E.A.T.’s installations at the pavilion, including the audio system and probably, lasers. I was moderately interested in the concept of an art–technology pavilion at the time, but I was much more interested in developing an x–y laser projector with Carson D. Jeffries.

Fig. 9

Fig. 9, Lowell Cross and David Tudor setting up for the first laser light show.

My short–lived appointment at Mills (which the college administration abruptly terminated at the end of the 1968–1969 academic year) had as its culmination the very first multi–color laser light show with x–y scanning. We presented it on the evening of 9 May 1969 in the outdoor Greek Theatre behind the music building on the Mills campus. Carson D. Jeffries and I spent several months planning, designing and constructing specialized mounting hardware, and collecting equipment, much of it borrowed from high–tech firms in the Bay Area such as Honeywell (mirror galvanometers and amplifiers) and Coherent Radiation Laboratories (a krypton laser). I have documented this activity in “Audio/Video/Laser,” Source, music of the avant garde, issue No. 8 (1970); and in “The Audio Control of Laser Displays,” db, the Sound Engineering Magazine, Vol. 15, No. 7 (July 1981). I invited David Tudor to join me as a composer–collaborator for this final event of the TMC’s concert season (see Fig. 9, Lowell Cross and David Tudor setting up for the first laser light show).

The works on that concert were Patrick Gleeson’s Public Roads (1969), Darius Milhaud’s Étude Poétique (1954, receiving its first public performance 15 years after its completion), an intermission feature by Anthony J. Gnazzo, and the Cross–Tudor collaboration, Audio/Video/Laser. Carson D. Jeffries and I named our equipment VIDEO/LASER, which, according to the TMC program notes, was “a pilot project for a proposed laser–generated display system for the Pepsi–Cola [...] Pavilion at the Osaka [1970] World Exhibition.” By this time, David Tudor in his role as an E.A.T. “Core Artist” was committed to a multi–color x–y laser system for the Pepsi–Cola Pavilion. As usual, he stayed with Nora and me at our Oakland apartment during those heady, memorable days in May 1969.